Knife in the Water

English Title: Knife in the Water

Original Title: Nóz w wodzie

Country of Origin: Poland

Studio: Zespól Filmowy “Kamera”

Director: Roman Polański

Producer(s): Stanislaw Zylewicz

Screenplay: Jakub Goldberg, Roman Polański, Jerzy Skolimowski

Cinematographer: Jerzy Lipman

Art Director: Jerzy Bossak

Editor: Halina Prugar

Runtime: 94 minutes

Genre: Psychological Thriller/Art Cinema

Language: Polish

Starring/Cast: Leon Niemcyzk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz

Year: 1962

Volume: East European


A well-off couple – the middle-aged sports journalist, Andrzej, and his attractive wife, Krystyna – are on their way to a sailing trip when they pick up a young hitch-hiker after almost running him over. Andrzej makes no effort to hide his contempt for the young drifter, and the conversation in the car immediately reveals a deep conflict of generation and social class. When they arrive at the lake where their boat is moored, Andrzej condescendingly invites the inexperienced young man to come on the trip with them. As they sail on the vast lake, tension simmers, fuelled by both male rivalry and erotic attraction between Krystyna and the young man. Andrzej begins to order the stranger about, daring him to take risks, while the latter ominously plays with a large flick-knife he carries with him. As the two men clash again and again, the escalating power games lead to an increasingly volatile situation.


Nóz w wodzie/Knife in the Water was Roman Polański’s first feature film, and the only one he made in Poland before emigrating to France. After studying at the illustrious Łódź Film School, he had completed eight short films, including Dwaj ludzie z szafą/Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) and Ssaki/Mammals (1962), which already demonstrated his dark humour and pessimistic vision of humanity. Knife in the Water was not successful in Poland, but it quickly gathered international praise, winning the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1962 and being nominated for an Oscar in 1963.


The film marked a departure from the older generation of post-war directors led by Andrzej Wajda. Known as the Polish New School, they were strongly concerned with historical and social issues. In contrast, both Polanski and his co-scriptwriter Jerzy Skolimowski, a young poet and fellow Łódź student (whose later films would be hailed by Jean-Luc Godard), shared an interest in the absurd and the non-conformist, as well as a marked social reticence; a theme central to Skolimowski’s own first feature film, Rysopis/Identification Marks: None (1964).


This is not to say that Knife in the Water is devoid of social observation. Polański described the film as an ‘attack on privilege’ in his autobiography, and this was the cause of sharp criticism from the communist establishment. The social commentary, however, is minimal, and is quickly subsumed within a wider reflection on base human nature, and modern psychology and psychosis. The material possessions of the couple – the car, the boat, the large apartment (mentioned but never seen) – clearly define them as petit-bourgeois in opposition to the hitchhiker, who owns only a small bag. The conflict is ostensibly based on generation as well as class, as the youth, footloose and happy to drift, seems to have markedly different values from his companions.


However, the characters are placed in a natural environment entirely cut off from any social context: the isolated setting turning the story into an existential fable in which social differences serve to bring out the primitive conflicts inherent to human interaction. The extremely confined space of the boat not only heightens dramatic tension, but also works as a microcosm. Human relationships are condensed to reveal the power struggle that underlies them. The two men play a dangerous game for control: first over the car (the hitchhiker stands in the road to force Andrzej to stop); then over the boat, as Andrzej humiliates the inexperienced hitchhiker; and finally over Krystyna. The rivalry between the two men is almost animalistic in nature, a savage fight for control over territory and mate, stripped of any social veneer.


The sense of claustrophobia is emphasised visually by the canted camera angles and crisp, deep-focus compositions. The positions of the characters in the foreground or background, alone or in pairs, represent the shifting alliances, as well as the impossibility of escaping conflict. It is a remarkably lean film with barely a single unnecessary shot – an impressive restraint that is also evident in Krzysztof Komeda’s sparse, melancholy jazz score, wherein tension arises as much from silence and inaction as from hostile confrontation, sound and fury.


Despite her apparent passivity throughout much of the narrative, Krystyna eventually gains the upper hand, and the film’s ambiguous denouement suggests that the arrogant Andrzej has lost control. Yet, there are no true winners in this game because there is no hope of change: although the two men seem to represent different values, they are essentially the same, mere mirror images, as a disillusioned Krystyna points out. Brilliantly, subtly menacing and masterfully realised, Knife in the Water is the first fully formed expression of Polański’s dark view of mankind, which would be central to his major works from Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to Chinatown (1974) and Le Loctaire/The Tenant (1976).

Author of this review: Virginie Sélavy